Is 'Avatar' the new best picture front-runner?
December 21, 2009 | 12:05 pm
This e-mail after Sunday night's official AMPAS unveiling of "Avatar" complete with 3-D glasses (from an academy voter who often supplies us and other bloggers with instant reactions and analysis of member screenings) says it all:
"Avatar wins. The environmental theme, 'borrowed from Dances With Wolves,' worked completely with a capacity AMPAS audience. Long applause for everything, except [James] Horner score, but who knows? Eight nominations, nine?"
Since attendance at most of these screenings has been averaging about 350 to 400 people, with the glaring exception being the capacity Sunday afternoon turnout on Nov. 1 for Michael Jackson's "This Is It" documentary, Oscar's full house for "Avatar" indicates intense industry interest and the apparent thumbs-way-up reaction should alert 20th Century Fox and James Cameron that perhaps they should start planning for a big night at the Kodak on March 7.
With the successful academy screening, a record $77-million opening weekend gross even with the severe snowstorms in the East, an incredible $235-million-plus overall worldwide gross plus an A rating from Cinemascore rating and an A+ from males younger than 25, "Avatar" had a great capper to a week that also included major Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Award nominations.
But can it be called a front-runner, especially in light of other major contenders, like "Up in the Air," "The Hurt Locker" and "Inglourious Basterds," doing extremely well as award season rolls out? Let's look at the landscape as it now stands as we begin the Christmas break, when presumably many academy members will be getting their first big chance to catch up on their DVD screeners and will have their own ballots in hand within a week.
"Up in the Air" started out gangbusters by taking the National Board of Review best picture prize, six Golden Globe and eight Critics Choice nods and also three SAG nominations, but it curiously was left out of the outstanding cast (a.k.a. ensemble) list, which is a stat that on the surface doesn't bode well, since no film since "Braveheart" in the category's first year has gone on to actually win best picture without at least a SAG nomination for its cast. It may well be that SAG, which nominated George Clooney, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, is looking at the film for its individual achievements rather than as an ensemble effort. We shouldn't read too much into the omission at this point. If this is a requirement to win the Oscar, then "Invictus" and "Avatar" (with no SAG recognition) are dead too. Don't think so.
"The Hurt Locker," with its countless critics group wins, from L.A. to New York and many points in-between (There really are too many of these groups, with more mysteriously cropping up every year. Are they being invented by studio consultants to make their award counts look good?) is clearly the anointed film this year by the critical community. And its across-the-board success with Globe, Choice and SAG nominations confirms that. It would appear Cameron's ex-wife, director Kathryn Bigelow, is indeed the front-runner in her category particularly, and as so many like to point out, no woman has ever won. She's got the best shot, since she made a movie that looked like it was directed by a man, and that could be enough for a chauvinistic academy that has nominated only two women previously (Lina Wertmuller and Jane Campion). It will also be an irresistable photo op if Cameron pulls off best picture but loses director to his ex.
"Inglourious Basterds" is the wild card. Quentin Tarantino's film seems to remain a favorite within the academy and has won four key Globe nominations, a record 10 from the Critics Choice Movie Awards and, even more significant, three SAG nods, including for best cast. Christoph Waltz has won nearly every supporting actor prize in sight to date and looks unbeatable, but could the film surprise too, as my Envelope colleague Tom O'Neil keeps insisting?
As for Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" and Rob Marshall's "Nine," nominations on the expanded best picture list seem likely, although the latter got stung by some particularly vicious reviews (musical haters?). But front-runners? No.
That brings us back to the question, 'Is Avatar the new front-runner for best picture?' As of now, I appear to be very lonely on Buzzmeter (and Gurus of Gold), listing it with a No. 1 ranking. I believe that will change soon, just as it did when my fellow bloggers finally saw the light on Sandra Bullock's inevitable best actress nomination. True, it doesn't have a single SAG nomination, and the performance-capture technique the film employs is still controversial among some thesps, so what the all-important and very large actors branch has to say will be key. And even though no 3-D movie has ever won (or even been nominated), and fantasy films are few and far between unless they start with the words "Lord of the Rings," "Avatar" seems strongly positioned to win Oscar's heart with its strong environmental and social messages, its not-so-thinly-veiled Bush bashing and, most important, its technological breakthroughs that present endless new possibilities for the movie industry. Make no mistake about it. It's the industry that is voting in this contest. I can see the academy that showered a record-tying 14 nominations and 11 Oscars on Cameron's last film, "Titanic," 12 years ago ready to do it all over again.
"Avatar" is suddenly the one to beat.
— Pete Hammond
"It's the least most of us can do, but less of us will do more."